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Erin McKean shares how to make the most of a conference

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Chances are, many of you reading this column will attend a conference in 2013 — in the next few months alone, Chicago is hosting TechWeek and the National Restaurant Association Show, and this week is the Comic & Entertainment Expo. This upcoming weekend in Chicago, May 2-4, I’ll be emceeing the third TEDxMidwest, and I can’t wait. We’re bringing together 35 of the most fascinating, world-class speakers — like Paul Salopek, a Pulitzer Prize-winning writer; Julia Sweeney, an author and famous comedienne; Jeanne Gang, a MacArthur prize-winning architect; and Carol Marin, a two-time Peabody Award-winning journalist — for a series of inspiring talks that have previously been described as the “ultimate brain spa.”

For me, conferences are like little mental vacations: a chance to go visit an interesting place for a couple of days, and come back rested and refreshed with new ideas and perspectives. Many of those new ideas and perspectives will come from the fantastic lineup of speakers, but more than a few will come from the conversations with other attendees, and I’m looking forward to those just as much. At previous TEDxMidwests, I’ve met artists, scientists, entrepreneurs, teachers, parents, fellow UChicago alumni and even a previously unknown distant relative-by-marriage.

As a conference connoisseur, I’ve got a few tips for those of you planning to attend — ways to get the most out of TEDxMidwest (or any conference).

First of all, make sure to prepare in advance. Especially if you’re shy, spend a little time looking at the speaker lineup, and explore a little more about the speakers and their topics. Having facts at your fingertips can be confidence-building, giving you something interesting to add to the discussion. (For instance, did you know that Ron Finley, the activist behind LA’s Green Grounds project, is also a professional clothing designer?)

And whether you’re a shy scientist or an exuberant salesperson, it’s always good to practice the shortest answer to “What do you do?” that easily leads to a follow-up question. (I usually say, “I work on, the biggest English-language dictionary in the world.”) Answers that are too long (“I’m responsible for products A, B, C … X, Y, Z in [57 countries, all listed]” don’t give your conversational partner an opportunity to ask you any questions, and answers that are too short (“I’m a doctor”) make you sound as if you don’t want to talk about what you do.

Don’t have a traditional job? An answer like, “I spend all my time studying (or blogging about) Y/volunteering for X/looking for a new way to use my Z skills/parenting two rambunctious toddlers,” serves the same purpose — people don’t ask the “what do you do?” question so they can fill out an economic survey; they ask to make conversational connection easier.

A few other tips for striking up interesting conversations: Keep your phone in your pocket or purse — no one likes to talk to someone who is busy reading email or texting; never sit at an empty table at meals and breaks — fill up a table instead, so conversations don’t have to jump the gap of an empty chair; and be sure to grab a seat well before the talks start, so you have a chance to chat with your neighbors in the auditorium. And don’t forget to bring your business cards and a notebook so you can follow up with your new friends.

Erin McKean is the emcee of TEDxMidwest and the founder of Reverb, which launched

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